Mature Mind & Positive Influence

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In those moments when we feel least effective and most frustrated, and especially when this experience becomes chronic, we’re aware of how it steals our capacity to get things done. Something has happened and continues to happen in our mind. It's not working as well as we’d like it to. We’re exhausted, perhaps irritable or indifferent, but certainly not positively charged. Our thinking is dulled, our judgment is compromised, our imagination and repertoire of problem-solving skills seem to have left us. And it’s not just us; we seem unable to connect and influence others in any positive way. This is not what we want. We’re stuck. We want change. And change can happen. That’s what I discuss in my latest whitepaper.

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Are You Growing as a Leader?

Exciting Growth at the Intersection of Person and Role-Taking

Some of our most dramatic gains in leader development owe much to identity growth spurts, which occur in the course of facing new challenges. They are effortful, sometime even painful, breakthroughs that transform our ways of thinking, feeling, and relating. They’re occasioned by the felt demands of the roles we take. The demands are more than a call to action, they’re a call for adaptive learning about self, situation, and what we must do differently in order to thrive.      

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Are you or someone you care about at this intersection of growth? Its arrival is accompanied by feelings of exhilaration and exhaustion, high hopes and perilous fears. It usually includes a pervasive sense that much is at stake, and that we have a significant opportunity to make a difference. Beyond the elation over “upsides” lie a sobering burden of responsibility, often more felt than fully understood. What can we do to make the most of this opportunity and fulfill its responsibilities?      

Those are the questions I discuss in this article.  

The Effects of Challenge

From infancy forward, there is within each of us an inherent curiosity and striving to be, to explore, to experience, and to orient ourselves in our surrounding world. We do not do this alone; it’s always within a social context and in the company of others who reflect back to us what they see in us. With the best of parenting, teaching (school years), and supervision (in vocational life), we find encouragement in the responses of others as they recognize and affirm our insights and evolving competencies as persons.     

In that way, we become known to others and to ourselves as independent centers of awareness with a capacity for intelligent adaptive action. A growing sense of our personal potential to initiate purposive action (agency), and to do so in ways that genuinely express our interests and preferences (personality) constitute core elements of our identity (unique self). And as we cultivate a mature attunement to our normative framework of moral beliefs about what is good, right, and proper, self-identity deepens.     

 Figure 1. The Challenge-Development Curve

Figure 1. The Challenge-Development Curve

This all occurs, of course, as we navigate the school years, post-secondary education, and early career experience. At some point, our challenges become less about individual task-oriented, practical abilities, especially as we aspire to manage and lead others. Then, challenges become more complex, our success becomes increasingly contingent upon the way we get work done through others. Cognitive, emotional, and relational aspects of working together co-determine our efficiency and effectiveness.   

Those who seek careers in management tend to be achievement oriented. Presenting them with new or bigger problems or opportunities will typically represent a powerful stimulus for creative-productive action. It will intensify their focus and efforts – cognitive, emotional, and practical. As illustrated in Figure 1, rising levels of challenge will stimulate learning and gains in our capacity to perform…that is, up to a point (A-B). Beyond the inflection point we not only observe diminishing returns but actual declines in our capacity to perform.

This downward spiral (decompensation) is usually the result of accumulated stress, strain, and fatigue. These effects can build insidiously, just as the boiling-the-frog metaphor suggests. Although it may feel we are suffering these effects privately, it is others who will often first notice their adverse impacts, and not just at work. It’s often those closest to us who witness our unvarnished emotional reactions and our insistent assertions that we’ll get a handle on it.   

Plotting Our Position on the Curve

As you scan Table 1, I am confident that some of the “warning signs” will be familiar, because you’ve been there yourself or because you’ve observed them in others. Most of us with confidence and a track record of “playing through pain” will rationalize, minimize, or deny feeling stuck. It will be embarrassing to acknowledge that our coping efforts are failing, that our struggles are affecting others. In the best of circumstances this defensive routine is shorter in duration, it’s almost never nonexistent.    

 Table 1. Warning Signs of an Approaching Inflection Point

Table 1. Warning Signs of an Approaching Inflection Point

The most important reason to specify the warning signs of an approaching inflection point is to prompt attentiveness. By noticing these signs earlier, we are more able to come to grips with them in a timely and effective manner. Timely intervention, as illustrated in Figure 2, requires a “reflective pause” and perspective-taking at just the time when our focus is narrowing and intensifying. Feelings of desperation are beginning to activate defenses and close off our access to adaptive avenues of action.     

 Figure 2. A Multi-Curve Model of Adaptive Growth

Figure 2. A Multi-Curve Model of Adaptive Growth

However, with timely intervention, we can change the trajectory of the curve. In fact, we can perhaps facilitate a “jump” to another curve, achieving a more transformative quality of adaptive change and growth. Doing this requires the counter-intuitive use of the reflective pause mentioned above.     

You will notice prior to the inflection points B, D, and F in Figure 2 are reflection points B1, D1, and F1. There is a downward dip in the new curve of adaptive development. It represents the pause, pulling our shoulders back from “wheel” for a moment. There is also an outward shift to the right, which indicates capacity growth that is will span even higher levels of challenge.   

These are intervention points. The pause provides us with an opportunity to assess the felt the demands of our role afresh. It allows us to appreciate how those demands impinge upon us. In what aspects of the challenge are we finding ourselves overwhelmed, lacking the know-how or capacity to cope?

Although our individual reflection upon these matters may produce valuable insights and possibilities for action, it is the feedback from others, our stakeholders, that will prove especially helpful. It will help us appreciate what only they can see and report from their role and their experience of our presence and behavior. (For more on the vital importance of feedback, see my recent article on the Johari Window.) With increased self-awareness and other-awareness, we are better able to target key gap themes.    

Coaching helps us acquire these data, actively and fruitfully process them for insight, and then translate those insights into work-relevant, role-specific development themes. In such “processing” the coach is there to offer a sufficiently tough quality of “love” (self-discovery & encouragement) to ensure that we formulate realistic ideas about what we need to do differently, where to start, and how to include and involve others in the process. After all, why ask for feedback if we’re not going to invite constructive engagement, right?   

Conclusions

There’s much more to the process of leader identity development that occurs in the course of adult role-taking. And there is more to the art of being there for those we coach through this vital kind of personal growth. Both merit additional attention. However, one further thought I would leave you with is that of an “Arc of Virtue.” It’s the arc traced by the upward line of movement that intersects the origin of each new adaptive development curve in Figure 2.    

I use these graphical illustrations because I hope they can help us better picture the constellation of forces at work in adult development. Knowing these graphics are based upon well-established theory and empirical research, should give us reason for optimism. But to bolster that point, let me share an even more fundamental truth: It is that none of this is out of reach for any of us unless we choose to believe it is beyond us. Don’t make that mistake!

Do You Really Want to Manage?

It’s a common question among early-career professionals, those in the first 5-7 years of their career. But it also arises later for mid-career adults who’ve had a bit of supervisory or managerial experience. And beyond its specific focus on managerial versus non-managerial career options, it symbolizes a deeper inquiry about what we want in life, what motivates us and why, deeper more existential questions.

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So, perhaps “want” is the most important word in my title. It points directly to the appetitive dimension of human nature and motivation. And when we consider the more nuanced differences between want and desire, and seeking and striving, we discover the source, meaning, and power of such aspirational themes, how they shape our identity, influence our actions, and produce joy or perpetual restlessness.  

Simple Definitions Reveal Complexity

About Wants

To want is to desire, but in a specific sense. It’s a simpler, object-specific desire for something we do not have. Wants arise and are satisfied or not through our acquisition of the wanted object, i.e., chocolate, a car, a pay raise, a promotion, a date, tickets to a concert – things that are external to us as persons. Wants come and go, one after another. They’re discrete felt needs of limited duration.  

About Desires

Desires that live beyond the satiation of any one want, that go to our sense adequacy and well-being as a person… Well, that’s a different thing. It’s the full and proper meaning of desire as distinct from want. Its aim is to extinguish deeply felt needs for completion. Its intensity is a craving to fill a hole within us. Its intensity can become desperate, obsessive, especially as it grows outside conscious awareness. 

Risks of Confusion

It is in this sense that in Buddhism and in some Western religions, desire can be seen as the root of all suffering and moral failure. It is in this sense also that desire can lead to inauthentic living. For rather than focusing on being, we surrender to an anxious, acquisitive, alienating mode of life called having. We mistake parts for the whole of life. We mistake stuff for growth and self-actualization.  

So, want and desire run amok can lead away from love, virtue, growth, and happiness. But they’re also inherent to our nature. They energize our being and need not run amok, lead to harm and unhappiness. When we attend to and notice the wants and desires that define our appetite and actions, we can choose to examine them with an attitude of curiosity. We can learn!  

Wisdom from Reflection

Something as ostensibly practical and compartmentalized as the question of whether or not I really want a career in management can lead to more fundamental questions. Notice how these questions arise from troubled feelings, in moments of suffering. Wants and desire are felt and acted on long before they consciously or cognitively known. Their life predates our verbal and cognitive abilities. 

Some Classic Wisdom

The words of a famous 17th century philosopher, Spinoza, are relevant here: “The endeavor, wherewith everything endeavors to persist in its own being, is nothing else but the actual essence of the thing in question.” (From his Ethics) Our vital endeavors to be can run amok. We are imperfect creatures. and we are moved by two kinds of emotion according to Spinoza, those linked to actions and passions.          

Actions are purposive endeavors, conscious and guided by considered judgment. Passions are aroused or excited by things and experience external to us. They may arouse positive feelings, elevated emotions of wonder, compassion, and love. However, when they operate without the mediation of mind, they can also arouse baser fears and reactive acts of avoidance or aggression.  

Practical Take-Aways

It is our relationship to the feelings that arise in life that is most vital. Thus, asking what I want and why I want it raises to consciousness the aims and meaning that our strivings hold for us. What is it that seems so important? What is it that this desire signals about me and what I need? In this way, some desires are extinguished (as false goods), others reframed as wants or transformed into something less intense.  

We now more easily appraise the relative importance of the values that underlie our appetitive strivings. We gain emotional freedom and make informed choices about life goals and career goals. Our strivings are aligned – and they’ll need to be repeatedly aligned – with aims of virtue and happiness. Always more difficult in reality than in thought, and always made easier in conversation with those we trust.

Fear as a Call to Action

We think of fear as a negative emotion. It excites reactive tendencies to avoid something, flee a situation. It can even cause a momentary paralysis of action. We can feel embarrassed to admit and reveal our fears. So, it’s not difficult to see why fear is among the least welcome emotions.

 Maria Helena Vieira da Silva

Maria Helena Vieira da Silva

A Closer Look at Fear

There are two kinds of fear. The first is a naturally endowed, instinctual fear, which has an obvious evolutionary survival value. It’s a visceral reaction to imminent threat. It’s aroused automatically as a product of the autonomic nervous system. It accelerates our heart rate, constricts blood vessels, and raises blood pressure, prepares us to flee, flight, or freeze.

The other kind of fear is learned. Much of it is learned early in life based upon our feelings of security. Absent reliably available and encouraging caregivers, we might learn that we’re on our own. Relationships can’t be trusted. We feel less secure, are more likely to perceive threats and to amplify and exaggerate them. Such fears, once functional, can become dysfunctional.

Fear as Positive

A more adaptive learning occurs in the presence of reliable, caring parents. Fears are treated as prompts for learning. First, the parent is there as a safe harbor - child is not on his/her own. Second, the parent-child dialogue places fears at a safe distance - child survives them and learns that setbacks are survivable. Finally, the child finds safe ways to face what was earlier feared.

This is what I meant by characterizing fear as a “call to action.” Rather than learning that fears are to be denied or fled from, we can focus on the message the fears convey: “A reactive fear is forming. I can feel it. It could flood me with amplified and exaggerated feelings of distress. But I know that the best course of action might be to pause, reflect, discuss the situation.”

Fears will continue to visit us. After we’ve left home, advanced into early adulthood, perhaps started a career, and may even have formed a committed relationship or family, they will come. So, we need to take what we learned with our parents and seek the help of others, i.e., supervisor, spouse, close friends. But what if we didn’t get that supportive help and learning as a child?

Activating the Positive Value of Fear

Find a psychotherapist or coach to help you learn the lessons you missed in childhood. They are trained to be that kind of presence for you. It’s not too late. Moreover, they can help you learn how to cultivate this kind of joint learning with others at work or at home. And the first thing you’ll learn is how to recognize your own learned fears as they arise.

Fears can have positive value as signals when we learn to recognize them. When we acquire the capacity to notice the visceral sensations, we bring them into our conscious awareness, i.e., “Oh, it’s you again!” We’re then able to transform their automaticity. In discussion with others, we objectify fears, we problematize them and analyze them.

And from there we can usually find adaptive avenues of action. The problem-focused avenue works on the external circumstances. The meaning-focused avenue works on the meaning which the external situation have for us. As we examine our relationship to these circumstances, we find that there are alternative ways to look at (appraise) the situation.

The helping relationship becomes a place for cultivating these ways of relating to others about our fears. In the safety of this relationship a corrective pattern of emotional response grows. Our inhibitions about acknowledging and addressing fears weakens. And that frees us to go to work on the residual problems and challenges with greater confidence, patience, and persistence.

Adaptive Development

It’s difficult to imagine that any achievement-oriented, high-functioning adult would not at some point in his or her life experience a “rough patch” characterized by high levels of stress. It’s often induced by the time and performance pressures inherent to the challenges we invite, welcome, and take on.

Stress, Depression, & Burnout

Research confirms what many of us have experienced as the effects of stress. When levels of stress rise and remain high for long periods of time, it leads to felt strain, fatigue, and depressed mood. The physical and psychological effects of chronic stress can thereby lead to burnout.

But how do you know where you are on this continuum of stress-depression-burnout? And what do we know about effecting a turnaround, even using episodes of acute stress and depressed mood to cultivate resilience (so-called “hardiness” and “mental toughness”)?

 Developing  mental toughness  can make a difference: (Haghighi & Gerber, 2018)

Developing mental toughness can make a difference: (Haghighi & Gerber, 2018)

Stress is associated with depression symptoms, but the effects differ depending upon whether we have high levels or low levels of mental toughness. In fact, mental toughness has been found to be negatively related to stress, depression, burnout, and sleep issues. How do we bottle it, right? Or more practically speaking, what is it and how do we develop it?

It consists of four interrelated dimensions (the 4 Cs):

  1. Control - feeling able to take charge, influence outcomes

  2. Commitment - ready to apply self, persist, confront issues

  3. Challenge - seeing change as normal, opportunity vs threat

  4. Confidence - feeling of self-efficacy and competence

Can we develop mental toughness: Yes, research suggests that mental toughness works as a stress buffer, a resilience resource, and it is a "target variable for health interventions."

Cultivating Mental Toughness

It's hard to feel in control when you are exhausted, overwhelmed, and can't see where to begin and how to proceed. By stepping back from the field of action with the help of a coach, you begin to gain a more balanced perspective, which calms and clears your mind. This momentary reduction in stress, creates time and space in dialogue to sort things out, prioritize concerns, identify action steps, all of which breeds hope and a greater internal locus of control. 

We're more likely to rally commitment when there is reason for hope and resources to support our efforts. And it's more rational when we have realistic plans and a step-by-step approach to begin changing things for the better. starting now. It's not just your coach who will support your efforts. Through dialogue with the coach you're able to identify key areas in which you need help as well as ideas about who to approach and how for help.

To see your situation as a challenge is to frame it more in terms of adaptive development. "Of course I'm feeling overwhelmed, look at the novelty, complexity, time pressures, and scope of the demands I've been facing. I was paralyzed by it all. But that was then, this is now." We begin seeing challenge as a development opportunity. You don't need to pretend you have everything figured out. Now is the time to go about learning to figure it out!

All of us can have our confidence shaken. We can also regain our confidence through taking intelligent action and building on incremental gains. With each step forward we affirm our practical competence and value as an actor, as a collaborator, as a leader. We learn to feel more at ease in freely revealing our questions, our needs for knowledge and resources, and our determination to draw upon others to build our capabilities to perform and realize our goals.

Signs of Burnout

Christina Malach was the first to develop a sound conceptualization of burnout. She operationalized it in the Maslach Burnout Inventory, which has been widely used internationally to study stress and burnout. Burnout consists of three dimensions: Exhaustion ("I feel emotionally drained."); Cynicism ("I doubt the value/significance of what I'm doing."); and Professional Efficacy ("I can/cannot solve the problems that I am facing."). 

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In a somewhat different model, I've conceptualized the phenomenon of burnout in the Challenge-Development Curve. In this graphic we observe that rising levels of challenge will usually prompt rapid and adaptive gains in learning and competence. That is, up to a point, the inflection point. It's at or near that point that, absent some kind of helpful intervention, we begin experiencing burnout ("decompensation").

The critical factor in learning to cope more effectively with stress and identifying opportunities to cultivate mental toughness, is recognizing the signs of an approaching inflection point. See the table below.

Warning signs for development Cropped.jpg

We're an adaptive species with plenty of capacity to learn, grow, thrive. But timely intervention means noticing our flagging energy, motivation, mood, and dips in performance. What we feel or see in others's feelings should alert us to taking action. There are rather quick and easy ways of assessing the symptoms of depression and anxiety that might arise with burnout. And it's important to do so.

Solutions comes in many "sizes." A relatively simple case of stress trending toward burnout, but which has not yet produced strong symptoms of depression or anxiety might be resolve in 4-6 meetings with a coach. In more complex cases, a great deal of progress can usually be achieved in 6-8 meetings. In either case, feelings of hope, a vital part of the change process, can begin arising even in the first couple meetings.  

Resources:

Haghighi, M., & Gerber, M. (2018). Does mental toughness buffer the relationship between perceived stress, depression, burnout, anxiety, and sleep? International Journal of Stress Management.

Slavich, G. M., & Auerbach, R. P. (2018). Stress and its sequelae: Depression, suicide, inflammation, and physical illness. In J. N. Butcher & J. M. Hooley (Eds.), APA handbook of psychopathology: Psychopathology: Understanding, assessing, and treating adult mental disorders., Vol. 1. (pp. 375–402). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.